Still, to many, this feels like power. The reason Mary Ellyn Weissman, who organizes an annual trip to Hedo, felt empowered there was the exact reason I felt disempowered. “You can’t walk through the dining room with a sexy dress on and not have somebody say something to you,” she said. “Now, that’s empowerment. It helps you to recognize that you are good enough.” In the clothed areas, the women are the ones who dress up and get showered with compliments, Weissman said. She and her husband Jim’s outfits reflected this: She wore a small dress and sparkly platform shoes, while he donned a casual shirt and slacks. So did theme nights like “hats and heels,” where men tended to dress silly while women dressed sexy. Jim Weissman chalked this up to men being “visually motivated,” while women care about their partners’ personalities. In other words, at Hedo—like most other places—women’s looks mattered more than men’s.
Over and over again, guests told me they loved the nudity because shedding markers of social status equalizes everyone. But if removing clothes hid class differences, it only made gender differences more pronounced. Men’s bodies became free from social norms and unconditionally accepted, while women’s became erotic, whether they wanted them to or not. (I didn’t meet anyone who identified as trans our non-binary, and given how powerfully gender roles structured guests’ interactions, I’m not sure if they’d feel comfortable.) Men got to forget about their looks, while I thought about mine incessantly. For the brief moments my appearance left my mind, other guests and staff reminded me of it.
Women’s objectification masked as liberation is nothing new. It’s an oft-quoted saying that women’s desire is for the desire of men. Accordingly, efforts to cater to our “desire” have instead focused on our desirability. Sensuous curves and seductive O faces illustrate articles and books about female sexuality. “Freeing the nipple” and wearing sexy lingerie are said to liberate us. Our sexuality remains defined by what we look like, not what we look at.
Whether they’re the objects of women’s desire or other men’s, men are rarely portrayed erotically, lest they be feminized. Pop songs like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Cool for the Summer” celebrate woman-on-woman hookups, while male bisexuality remains taboo. We’re taught women just don’t like looking at men, belying the popularity of Magic Mike and the status of “gay men” as women’s second-most popular category on PornHub. Of course, some women find joy in traditional modes of female sexuality, but the problem is that patriarchy encourages those choices while shaming us for enjoying anything else.
This notion that men are programmed to look while women are designed to be looked at is totally alienating to me. I don’t get off on being watched, but I love watching men. So, many attempts to liberate my sexuality have instead repressed it—including Hedo.
When I tried to express my authentic sexuality there, I was punished. I entered the playroom, where couples go for public sex, and a man having sex with a woman got my attention. As my gaze lingered on him, a staff member told me that if I wasn’t going to “play,” I had to leave. It’s what women are constantly taught: We must cater to someone else’s desires, or we can’t participate at all. We can’t be sexual without being sexualized. Maybe the playroom’s staff just didn’t want to subject anyone to non-consensual voyeurism. But if that man’s engagement in public sex in the playroom didn’t mean he was consenting to be stared at, why did my public nudity give men license to stare at me?
A space can’t be “safe,” as the PR rep described Hedo, unless it lets us determine how our bodies are seen, including whether or not they’re sexualized. Creating such an environment is possible. I would know: In college, I modeled for a figure-drawing class where every single student was an older man. No one looked at or spoke to me in a sexual manner. After years spent learning women’s bodies are asking to be objectified, I realized I could be naked in a room full of men and remain a human being. This sunk in when a straight man told me he preferred drawing men because the lines were more challenging. That was the moment I felt liberated.
Still, I can see why sexual attention might feel liberating for others, particularly those routinely taught their bodies don’t deserve to be seen. One older couple at Hedo told me they cherished the freedom to be sexual without anyone thinking “ew.” An overweight woman was glad to feel for once like her body was accepted. Hedo’s brand of objectivity as liberation can work if it focuses on people with bodies that aren’t traditionally desired. But their liberation and my discomfort are two sides of the same coin. Both are products of a society that tells us only some bodies should be sexualized. It makes sense that fit women in their twenties are “unicorns” there, as one guest put it. When your body’s constantly sexualized, such a place doesn’t provide an escape. It just provides more opportunities for men to evaluate your appearance. Even if these evaluations are positive, they constrict us to gender roles rather than liberate us from them.
To me, liberation doesn’t mean gaining validation from men that I have a hot body. It means nobody caring how hot my body is. It means men looking into my eyes, no matter what I’m wearing, and letting me look back.